Reading "The Wapshot Chronicle"

John Cheever's first novel may seem like a family saga set in a fishing village -- but it's really all about male hysteria and rage.

Published June 27, 2005 9:41PM (EDT)

I don't know how my airplane ticket ended up in the toilet, but that's where I found it, after a frantic 10-minute search of a ladies' room in Chicago's O'Hare airport. The fact that I was 90 percent confident I hadn't even been in the particular stall could only be interpreted as further evidence of how "The Wapshot Chronicle" was confusing and disorienting -- and also annoying -- me. I was drying my ticket underneath the automatic hand drier (the stares of the other bathroom visitors indicating they had never seen someone drying an airplane ticket before), as my name was repeatedly paged. I picked up my coffee cup and bags, and ran. At the gate, my sodden ticket created a great deal of confusion; a supervisor was called, and I was grilled: "And your ticket is wet because why?" I went with "sink" rather than "toilet," and was finally allowed to board. I stepped onto the plane right foot first -- an old superstitious habit. I'm only superstitious when I'm flying.

Perhaps there were more exciting and picturesque (and more sanitary) settings for my reading of, and stewing about, "The Wapshot Chronicle" -- including my apartment, and a wonderful French cafe on my street in the West Village (where I have a bit of a reputation as an almond croissant connoisseur), and a Midwestern college bar that I essentially didn't leave for two days (it had a dozen Belgian beers on tap -- and they kept carding me, so I loved them), and poolside at a Los Angeles hotel, where the guy in the chair next to me (who looked as if he'd spent decades of his life on that very lounge chair, and who reminded me of a ridiculous guy in college my friends and I nicknamed "Mr. Tan Man") literally snapped his fingers at the waiter and barked, "Come back here, baby. Baby ... baby! I'm not done with you yet."

But this particular Boeing 747 happened, unfortunately, to be where my thoughts about Cheever's often boring, often spectacular first novel started coming together, and apart. I suppose I hadn't read "The Wapshot Chronicle" for much the same reason I haven't read "Moby-Dick" -- it seemed too nautical. At the center of "Wapshot" were, I knew, a hoary old captain and a big boat of mythical stature. And would there be knots? Yes, there would also probably be knots, many different kinds. Add a few paragraphs about anchors and compasses, and I'll never need another Ambien hit ever again. Cheever was all about his short stories, which I'll admit I'd come to fairly late, just -- ahem -- within the last several years. I probably read "The Swimmer" and "The Enormous Radio" at some point in college, because everyone reads "The Swimmer" and "The Enormous Radio" in college, but, if I did, I didn't remember them (my guess is I was probably busy that day composing and passing bratty notes to friends in class, or maybe I had my headphones on, as happened occasionally).

In school, I had a lot of punky and very uninformed opinions about Cheever, starting with an immature bias against anything I, in my exotic, black-wearing ways, deemed preppy and of a canvas tote bag quaintness, and ending with another personal prejudice (and I'm still susceptible to this one) against any kind of quiet, commercially "fine" literature that receives the critical thumbs up. I was both wrong and right about "The Wapshot Chronicle" -- much of it, particularly the beginning, is dreadfully boring and, to me, being boring is the absolute worst sin. And while I did fall asleep by the pool in L.A. as I was trying to get through one of "Wapshot's" several trout-fishing sections (I woke up with a monster headache), it is also a structurally and stylistically risky book, often shockingly obscene, often funny, and often really, truly insanely angry. If Cheever's best short stories are masterworks of omission and indirection, "The Wapshot Chronicle," the uncharacteristic winner of a National Book Award for fiction (the committee in 1958 was actually giving him a belated award for his stories, right?), is a maximalist project, a mad, breathless, digression-filled spectacle. It's also a fascinating performance, because you get to see the master short story writer teaching himself how to write a novel. In bald summary, "The Wapshot Chronicle" is the family saga of several generations of Wapshots of the fishing village of St. Botolphs. But it's really about male hysteria and rage.

These were roughly my thoughts when I gingerly set my damp boarding pass, my paperback copy of "The Wapshot Chronicle," and my coffee, size venti, onto my aisle seat. I was stuffing my very heavy bags (I'm a legendary over-packer) into the overhead compartment, when I noted how precarious the situation on my seat appeared, and had a vague thought about how much it would suck if I somehow were to spill my coffee. Which, of course, I did, about 30 seconds later -- all over my pants, my then-trashed boarding pass, and my "Wapshot Chronicle." I'm always looking for symbols and signs before my plane takes off, and, so far, these two -- the ticket in the toilet and the spilled coffee -- didn't seem like two promising ones. Water and, by extension (so thought my superstitious brain), watery fiascoes seemed to be the theme of the day, both mine and the "Wapshot's."

The patriarch of the Wapshot clan is old Leander, the retired fishing captain. In the years since Leander's two sons, Moses and Coverly, left St. Botolphs, he has kept himself busy by composing his autobiography -- which is written in his journal in poetic, choppy maxims -- and by obsessively writing letters to his boys. A line from one of his late letters: "In locker room, asked self: Was pederast?" Leander, who has some of the heaviest lines and passages in the book, is a sexually troubled and emasculated figure -- his beloved boat, the S.S. Topaze, and the farm where he and his wife, Sarah, live, are both owned by his imperious Cousin Honora. A true sui-generis female character, Cousin Honora -- aka the Wonderful Honora, the Splendid Honora and the Grand Honora Wapshot -- is the controller of the Wapshot purse strings and is the novel's emotional heart. Volumes could be written about her. Her only romantic attachment was apparently decades ago, with a mystery man of European extraction, "whose titles and castles turned out to be air." She is imperious and haughty -- adjectives that can be applied to all the female characters in the novel, in fact -- and her sense of self is so strong that the refrain, "I am Honora Wapshot. I am Honora Wapshot," is all that's required to convince her that the nighttime spooks she so fears have been scared away. Honora finds a medical vocabulary indelicate and ungracious and therefore pronounces, for example, "testicles" "testimumblemumbles," and, in one of my favorite scenes, when she offers poor Leander a plate of ant-covered cookies and he points out the ants to her, she snaps (how marvelously indignant Honora is!), "That's ridiculous ... I know you have ants at the farm, but I have never had ants in this house," and eats a cookie, and several ants.

A flight attendant helped me out with a stack of paper towels, and my neighbor, a blond guy in a red Huskies cap, very sweetly offered me his seat. I was blotting up the coffee from the cover and pages of my book, whose prose is so beautiful and rich -- yet is it sometimes too pretty? Yes, I think the prose is sometimes too pretty -- that I had underlined about every other sentence, when I couldn't help noticing yet another liquid issue. On the other side of the aisle, above the middle seat, a drop of water hung tremulously on the overhead console. It took several more drops before the passenger on whom the water was dripping seemed to notice. Soon, water droplets were forming above the consoles of several rows of seats, and people were cupping their hands over their heads. This is not something you want to see on a plane. The flight attendant was summoned, and a passenger suggested that the air conditioner was leaking, a suggestion the flight attendant rejected so decisively and defensively that it seemed as if this were her own personal plane. Maintenance guys appeared. Not something you want to see on a plane, either.

Now, I can't really read on planes, or think about anything other than keeping the plane in the air (in my own particular brand of megalomania, I believe that only the power of my own thought is keeping the plane airborne), but, because we were obviously going to be hanging out on the runway for a while, the stress of being airborne was going to be delayed, so I could read again.

The Wapshot brothers seem to revile each other, although I'm somewhat unclear about the nature of their relationship. They both move to big cities, Moses eventually works in a diplomatic job "so secret that it cannot by discussed here" ("WHAT?!?" I wrote in the margins of my book), and Coverly, by far the least-bright of the Wapshot clan, gets a job as a department store stock clerk. Both brothers eventually marry impossible women -- Moses marries Melissa, the ward of another wealthy female cousin, and a probable (in my opinion) lesbian who lives with this wealthy cousin in a mansion so vast no one ever counted the number of rooms, and Coverly marries Betsey, a women even dimmer than he (when Betsey first meets Coverly, she thinks his strident Yankee accent is English). Betsey abandons Coverly for a brief period, and that chapter begins, "And now we come to the homosexual part of the story ..." ("!!!" I wrote in the margin, "Can Cheever really get away with that?" I mean, who or what is the authorial voice in this odd chapter pricis?) In the "Wapshot" cosmology, the men are impotent and utterly powerless. Are the men happy about it? No, the men are not happy. As Coverly says to a psychologist at one point in the novel, "Well, sir, where I come from, I think it's hard to take much pride in being a man."

I was as deep into reading as I could have been expected to be, given that I'm always hyper-aware of any potentially lethal peculiarities when I'm on a plane, even when that plane is still on the runway. So back to our shared watery mystery: The maintenance heroes had a verdict -- apparently some genius had brought a bag of ice onto the plane, and that ice was leaking from several overhead compartments. A male passenger suggested it might be "dry" ice. One of the orange-vested maintenance men said, "Dry ice isn't allowed onboard. Dry ice is a haz-mat!" He pronounced "haz-mat" in that wonderfully flat Chicago accent that usually reassures me, but in this case, with these words, it did not. Then followed some passenger discussion about the properties of dry ice vs. non-dry ice, and a woman piped up and said, "Dry ice doesn't melt, guys."

For reasons unclear, it took more than half an hour to locate the source of the now very steadily dripping water. Flight attendants pulled out bags from the overhead compartments, and the famous ice bag -- which turned out to be a standard-issue rolling suitcase -- was finally sheepishly claimed by an eerie little fellow with shellacked black hair and who was wearing (I swear this is true) a trench coat. He seemed to be surprised that it was his ice, not someone else's, that had been causing so much commotion. I couldn't hear his conversation with the flight attendant, but I imagined him saying, "Oh, you mean that bag with ice." The passengers were from Chicago, so everyone was too polite to ask aloud the question we were all thinking, "What kind of idiot brings ice onto a plane?" (The secondary question: "And what, exactly, is the ice keeping chilled?")

The ice bag was confiscated, and a flight attendant rolled it to the back of the plane. In the time it took for the flight attendants to break up the ice -- such a long and nerve-rattling process that I was no longer imagining a bag of ice cubes, but, instead, a solid ice block -- I finally finished "The Wapshot Chronicle." In the end, the S.S. Topaze sinks, and is humiliatingly turned into a most unmasculine floating gift shop, Melissa's mansion meets a fiery demise, Leander drowns, the crazy wives give birth to sons, and homosexual urges are overcome. In short, the matriarchy is destroyed; the patriarchy triumphs. "The Wapshot Chronicle" seems to me an enormously flawed and erratic book -- the pacing is all wrong, there is zero in the way of plot, or even momentum, much of it is overwritten, a lot of the digressions are uninteresting, and few of the characters -- certainly none of the women -- are, in that favorite term of the leaden critic, "sympathetic." "The Wapshot Chronicle" is, however, sort of a great novel -- or I guess I should say that I often thought it was great -- but it's everything a great novel isn't supposed to be.

None of my premonitions of wet, airline doom turned out to be true, and the watery symbols and signs ended up being merely coincidences. (My bleak air travel premonitions never come to be, so I guess I should stop calling them premonitions.) When the ice had been pulverized, my plane finally took off for New York. I had been keeping a watchful eye on the ice man a few rows up, who was now staring straight ahead at his tray table. Without his ice, he wasn't as interesting. I threw the airline-issued blanket over my head, wondered if I was imagining that smell or if I actually still reeked of coffee, and thought about why "The Waspshot Chronicle" felt like a pick hacking at the ice block of my mind: If John Cheever didn't know how to write a novel, how is anyone else supposed to?

By Adrienne Miller

Adrienne Miller is an editor at Esquire and is the author of the novel "The Coast of Akron," published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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